YetAfter more than two weeks of marathon negotiations, Iran and six world powers were close to nailing down an historic nuclear deal that would bring sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Tehran's atomic program, diplomats said on Sunday.
But Iranian and Western officials said it was highly unlikely they would be able to finalize an agreement on Sunday, saying the earliest an agreement could be ready was more likely Monday
One of the truly irritating side effects of protracted negotiations like these is that it forces members of the punditocracy to repeat the same points over and over again in hopes someone will finally listen. There has always been, in my view, a significant chance that Khamenei could not take “yes” for an answer on a big deal that truly limited Iranian options, no matter how sweet the “yes” seemed to be.
Why? Because hating America is part of the Mullahcracy’s raison d’etre. It is what enables the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) to command the sanctioned economy and hence fund and enrich its members. The IRGC reportedly owns about three-quarters of Teheran real estate, a phenomenon redolent of the modus operandi of “security mafias” in places like Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Algeria, and Burma—to mention only a few examples. The Qods Brigades, the IRGC’s military arm, trumps the Iranian military itself when it comes to resources and political access. If Khamenei makes a “big deal” with the Americans, he basically screws the regime’s own Praetorian guard.
There is more. The Iranian population is young and does not like its leaders. It boasts one of the most pro-American populations in this western part of our galaxy. The leadership, fearing the longer-term power of this large generational cohort, has relaxed or simply has been unable to enforce many social rules laid down in earlier years of the Islamic republic—whether these concern alcohol consumption, unmarried couples living together, how women dress in public and what sporting events they go to, and so on. But expectations have continued to rise and the regime is running out of wiggle room.
Things are sketchy enough right now, but there is no serious political opposition; a “big deal” with the Americans is very likely to be taken by a lot of Iranians as a signal of regime relaxations across the board. This Khamenei cannot afford, because no one can say where it would end. So if there ever is a “big deal”, expect a very harsh crackdown on a range of behaviors the mullahs do not like. The basij will go wild bashing heads. If you think the regime violates human rights (as we understand them) now—and of course it does—just wait.
And there is even more. What would as much as $150 billion in unfrozen assets pouring into Iran do to that economy and society? One has to wonder if the mullahs understand the real reason the Shah fell. The Shah was a victim of his own success, and that of his father before him. The White Revolution basically worked. The clergy was dispossessed of its vast land holdings, along with significant land reform. Women were given the right to vote, an episode, in 1964, that catalyzed Ruhollah Khomeini’s first arrest. But when the money rushed in after the doubling of oil prices in 1974—a development that the Shah himself engineered more than any Arabs—it spawned massive corruption and social dislocation. If Khamenei understood this, the last thing he would want is $150 billion rushing into the arms of a pent-up, socially explosive Iranian political economy.
In short, there are very good reasons outside the four corners of a prospective deal for the Iranian leadership to walk away.The most likely outcome, despite the fact that most experienced observers, a lot of them far wiser, disagree.
Maybe they are right, because what Iranian leaders would get from a “big deal” isn’t insignificant. That would include the tacit but still very loud blessing of the United States on Iran’s becoming a threshold nuclear power. That is no small symbol. They would get a lot of money, and they would be fully open for business—not that the sanctions regime has not been quite leaky anyway, especially lately. They may think that they would become more popular among younger cohorts, siphoning off discontent with largesse. And perhaps above all, they would be consummate wedge drivers, giving their Sunni Arab adversaries multiple laundry problems.
Certainly there would be money aplenty left over to feed the Assad regime, Hizballah, the Houthis, Shi‘a cells in Bahrain, and so on.
At the very least, even if the Iranians did no more mischief than they are already doing, they would confirm the worst fears of America’s longstanding Arab allies, and Israel too: The Americans don’t care about you and won’t come to your aid if you get in trouble.